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  • “It Never Really Was the Same”:Brother to Brother’s Black and White and Queer Nostalgia
  • Elisabeth Windle (bio)

The 2004 film Brother to Brother, written and directed by Rodney Evans, presents a fictionalized account of the final months of the life of Harlem Renaissance artist and writer Richard Bruce Nugent. Interspersed among scenes of the elderly Nugent (Roger Robinson) mentoring a young artist, Perry Williams (Anthony Mackie), are black-and-white flashbacks to 1926, the year the young Nugent (Duane Boutte), along with Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Aaron Douglas, and Zora Neale Hurston, conceived of, created, and published what became the only issue of Fire!!: A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists.1 In a scene from the film’s present day, sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, Perry and the older Nugent sit on the floor in the hallway of the now dilapidated and abandoned Niggeratti Manor, where several of the Fire!! contributors lived during the 1920s.2 Nugent narrates Thurman’s death from alcoholism, and then Perry asks him what happened to the others. Nugent nostalgically replies: “I still saw them, but after that, it wasn’t the same. Times changed. The Depression set in and people really thought our excesses was [sic] what brought it on. It never really was the same. That sense of risk and magic was gone.” The “sense” to which Nugent refers here is marked as queer—risky, magical, and excessive—and no longer exists in the present.3 As he longs for the queer past, he provides a thoroughly nostalgic historical narrative; indeed, nostalgic feeling characterizes the film as a whole. At first glance, the two storylines in the film neatly parallel each other: Perry, coming of age at the end of the twentieth century, and the young Nugent, coming of age at the beginning of the twentieth century, negotiate their intersecting identities with difficulty. However, nostalgia prevails in the contrast between these two historical moments. It is Perry’s contemporary moment—one in which he is thrown out of his family’s home because he is gay, racially fetishized by an insensitive white lover, and beaten by a group of homophobic classmates—rather than Nugent’s historical moment that is positioned as more untenable for the gay black artist. Starting from this historical contrast, what follows is an exploration of black queer nostalgia in the film Brother to [End Page 6] Brother, a film that conjures a past that may have offered pleasures, communities, and opportunities inaccessible in the present. By contrasting the two historical moments during which it is set—the 2000 moment of widespread panic about the so-called “down-low” and the 1926 Harlem Renaissance moment of black queer creative energy—Brother to Brother offers a racially inflected alternative to queer theoretical models of temporality and mainstream gay narratives of progress.

Queer theory has lately entered an analytical cul-de-sac with regard to temporality. The present is plagued by neoliberalism and homonormativity; the future is rejected as antithetical to queerness. The past might offer a way out, but theorists are reluctant to position themselves nostalgically for a host of reasons. Against what Marlon B. Ross calls “(white)queer theory,” a term intended to speak the unspoken racial element of mainstream queer theory as it is traced through Michel Foucault and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, my exploration of nostalgia in Brother to Brother works alongside queer of color critique to show how this film deploys nostalgia in order to resist both the punishing black queer present and the white queer theoretical model that locates jouissance in the repudiation of the future (“Beyond” 163).4 In other words, Brother to Brother performs its own black queer theoretical work as it troubles both mainstream popular gay white narratives of progress (“It gets better”) and white queer theory’s insistence that futurity and queerness are antithetical. Queer nostalgia—both the idealizing memory of the queer past and the queer critique of progressive temporality that undergirds some forms of idealized queer memory—works in concert with and is constituted by nostalgia for the black past. Ultimately, queer nostalgia offers an answer to this question: if the queer present has...


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pp. 6-31
Launched on MUSE
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